Fans’ notes on the band that’s sharing joy and changing lives, one gig at a time
When’s the last time you fell so hard for a band you drove 339 miles — alone — to see them? That’s how hard I’ve fallen for the Hold Steady.
I was a bit late to the party — I slept on their ’04 debut, Almost Killed Me, but caught up with Separation Sunday, their uber-acclaimed second disc (#8 in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll), sealed the deal with Boys and Girls In America, and crossed the line into full-blown obsession when I saw them at the Middle East in Cambridge a year ago. I’ve since road-tripped to Northampton and Asbury Park and Lancaster, PA (339 miles — I was meeting people I knew, really), and NYC. Each show has been a blast — absolutely transcendent.
Wordguy/frontman Craig Finn, guitarist Tad Kubler, keyboardist Franz Nicolay, bassist Galen Polivka, and drummer Bobby Drake have been on the road almost constantly since the release of Boys and Girls. And it’s been a helluva year. They were on Kimmel and Letterman; they played “Atlantic City” at a Bruce Springsteen tribute concert at Carnegie Hall (you must watch Finn depart his body performing “Rosalita” with Bruce and company — “I was so excited, I was jumping out of my skin,” Finn told me); they made buzzworthy appearances at Bonnaro0 and Lollapalooza; and they opened for the Rolling Stones in Ireland. And everywhere they went, from Boise, Idaho to Zagreb, Croatia, they inspired a fan or three to sing and shout and sweat and get hooked on the giddy high.
The band’s riff-fueled barrage combines “classic rock with a lowercase ‘c,’ ” as Finn has said, with indie-rock economy, while Finn spins engaging, detailed narratives inspired by his youth spent in in Minneapolis. (I’ll let our witnesses fully describe their intoxicating performances.) Most shows end with “Killer Parties,” and before the verses kick in, Finn makes a simple, heartfelt benediction: “There is so much joy in what we do up here. I want to thank you all for being here tonight to share that joy with us.”
The joyful bond between the Hold Steady and its fans is unlike any I’ve experienced (except on a local level — hey, Schemers). To illustrate the fervor the band inspires, I’ve been poring through mash notes and bulletin board entries and other missives, because the fervor and eloquence of those words captures the essence of what it means to love the band — and rock and roll itself.
One of the people I was hooking up with at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster was Trip, a guy from Pennsylvania who I met through a radio station bulletin board. A month or so later he had a friend in Texas who was on the fence about going to see the Hold Steady. So Trip sent a note to his fellow fanatics, asking them to help push Vince into his car for the ride to Denton, TX. Vince’s inbox was flooded with testimonials from zealots in Maryland, New Jersey, Missouri, and Rhode Island (more acquaintances from the aforementioned radio station bulletin board). Here’s the missive that Vince sent Trip after the show:
“So where do I begin?
“You and I go back a long way. Through those years I can remember only a few times where you had such conviction and passion about a band I needed to know. First was the Clash. Then the Replacements. Later it was Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt. You never oversold. Never disappointed. My life is richer.
“But it’s been a while. I assumed those days were over. Too old. Nothing new left to surprise, etc., etc.
“Then comes the Hold Steady. I bought it because of you. I listened and didn’t get it. Didn’t hate it, but didn’t get what you got. Because of you I persisted in a way I never would have on my own. It grew on me, but I can’t say I got the magic.
“Then they come to town and you bring on the cavalry to demand I go. Lucky me, I have a son who shares 80 percent of my taste in music. He agrees to go. Really for me. He listens beforehand and is ambivalent.
“Then we go. It’s a small bar. Maybe 200 people tops. We’re up front. Can’t be closer without being in the band. We are both dazzled and grinning. Can’t remember the last time I had a moment like it. It was like seeing early Bruce, the Who with Keith Moon, Faces, you get the idea. I have no expectation that the Hold Steady could ever be a peer of those folks. That’s not the point. But they took me somewhere I haven’t been in forever . . . And it was so totally unexpected. Abandon and release. Maybe it was only a fleeting moment, but all the e-mails that came my way from your friends suggest otherwise.
“I’m still smiling (and playing the records to death, which make all the sense in the world to me now). Andrew is the same and becoming obnoxious to his friends.
“So thanks again for all the above. Special thanks for giving me the first chance for me and my son to ‘discover’ our new favorite band together. A first.
“I’ll never forget it. Let me know when you need me to send an e-mail to the next person on the fence.”
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